GORED BY WALL STREET: Senate Blocks Vote To Rein In Big Banks — Because It Probably Would Have Passed

Simon JohnsonSimon Johnson

: May 21, 2010 09:21 AM

Focus on This: Merkley-Levin Did Not Get a Vote

After nine months of hard fighting, yesterday financial reform came down to this: an amendment, proposed by Senators Jeff Merkley and Carl Levin that would have forced big banks to get rid of their speculative proprietary trading activities (i.e., a relatively strong version of the Volcker Rule.)

The amendment had picked up a great deal of support in recent weeks, partly because of unflagging support from Paul Volcker and partly because of the broader debate around the Brown-Kaufman amendment (which would have forced the biggest 6 banks to become smaller). Brown-Kaufman failed, 33-61, but it demonstrated that a growing number of senators were willing to confront the power of our biggest and worst banks.

Yet, at the end of the day, the Merkley-Levin amendment did not even get a vote. Why?

Partly this was because of procedural maneuvers. Merkley-Levin could only get a vote if another amendment, proposed by Senator Brownback (on exempting auto dealers from new consumer protection rules) got a vote. Late yesterday afternoon, Senator Brownback was persuaded, presumably by his Republican colleagues and by financial lobbyists, to withdraw his amendment.

Of course, Merkley-Levin was only in this awkward position because of an earlier lack of wholehearted support from the Democratic leadership — and from the White House. Again, the long reach of Wall Street was at work.

But the important point here is quite different. If Merkley-Levin did not have the votes, it was in the interest of the megabanks to have it come to the floor and be defeated. That would have been a clear victory for the status quo.

But Merkley-Levin had momentum and could potentially have passed — reflecting a big change of opinion within the Senate (and more broadly around the country). The big banks were forced into overdrive to stop it.

The Volcker Rule, in its weaker Dodd bill form (“do a study and think about implementing”), perhaps will survive the upcoming House-Senate conference — although, because this process likely will not be televised, all kinds of bad things may happen behind closed doors. Regulators may also take the Volcker Rule more seriously — but the most probable outcome is that the Fed and other officials will get a great deal of discretion regarding how to implement the principles, and they will completely fudge the issue.

Most importantly, everyone who wants to rein in the largest banks now has a much clearer idea of what to push for, what to campaign on, and for what purpose to raise money. This is the completely reasonable and responsible ask:

  1. The Volcker Rule, as specifically proposed in the Merkley-Levin amendment
  2. Constraints on the size and leverage of our largest banks, as proposed by the Brown-Kaufman amendment

When the mainstream consensus shifts in favor of these measures, or their functional equivalents, we will have finally begun the long process of reining in the dangerous economic and political power of our largest banks.

This post was originally published on The Baseline Scenario.

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Tapped Out: When Water Bills Force Foreclosure

Some may recall the post I did about DISTURBING BEHAVIOR in FLORIDA: The $67K Water Lien! Revoked Homestead!

I guess this isn’t that rare. Take a look what a $3,000 unpaid water bill can do if you DO NOT HAVE ANY MORTGAGE.

One raw day in early February, Vicki Valentine stood by helplessly as real estate investors snatched her West Baltimore home over what began with an unpaid city water bill of $362. Valentine lost the property after the city sold her debt to investors through a contentious and byzantine legal process called a tax sale. This little-known type of foreclosure can enrich investors as growing numbers of property owners struggle to pay their bills.

Chase Sued AGAIN Over Mortgage Modifications Gone Wrong: HUFFINGTON POST

Arthur DelaneyArthur Delaney arthur@huffingtonpost.com | HuffPost Reporting

First Posted: 05- 4-10 03:15 PM   |   Updated: 05- 4-10 04:58 PM

Three frustrated homeowners in New York City are suing JPMorgan Chase over the bank’s failure to permanently modify their mortgages under the Obama administration’s plan to help homeowners avoid foreclosure.Earns Jpmorgan Chase

The complaint, filed in federal court in New York, says the plaintiffs, who are represented by attorneys with the nonprofit Urban Justice Center, relied on promises by Chase that they could have their loans modified if they made reduced payments per the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). Despite making payments on time, they’ve received foreclosure threats but no modifications.

One of the plaintiffs, Alex Lam, a 35-year-old restaurant manager, alleges Chase told him to actually stop making payments in order to be eligible for help. In early 2009, Lam contacted Washington Mutual (since absorbed by Chase) about a modification after his adjustable-rate mortgage blew up in his face. He was told he didn’t qualify for help because he was current on his payments.

“Mr. Lam was specifically told that if he stopped making payments for several months, he could be considered for a modification,” the says the complaint.

The next big surprise came in December, when, after making trial payments of $1,568 for the previous six months, Lam was told he owed the bank $12,000. When he protested, Chase relented and told Lam to apply once again for a mod, this time under HAMP. He made his payments until March, when Chase told him he’d failed HAMP’s opaque “Net Present Value” test, meaning the bank determined the investors who owned the loan would make more money via foreclosure than modification. Lam alleges Chase used bogus inputs for the NPV test and that Chase refuses to show its work.

Lam called the situation “very upsetting” in an interview with HuffPost. “I trusted them because they’re a big bank. I did whatever they asked me to.”

HuffPost asked Lam what he wanted from suing Chase.

“Just to get a modification, that’s all I’m asking for,” he said. “Since day one, that’s all I’m asking for.”

HAMP lawsuits have been flying. Last week a 91-year-old veteran of three wars named Peter Ruplenas sued Bank of America over mortgage mod malfeasance in West Virginia.

In April, Faiz and Khadija Jahani of California sued Chase for reasons similar to Lam’s — the bank told them to stop making payments to qualify for help, then foreclosed. A similar case is brewing in Seattle.

Homeowners are supposed to be eligible for HAMP mods if they’re having trouble making monthly payments, owe less than $729,750, took out the loan before January 2009, and if their payment on their first mortgage is more than 31 percent of their income. In theory, if homeowners make reduced payments (typically $500 cheaper) for three months, they are put in “permanent” modifications that last for five years.

But the banks voluntarily participating in HAMP have given permanent mods to just 230,000 homeowners in the program’s first year, a far cry from the three to four million officials said HAMP would help. Meanwhile, frustrated homeowners’ stories of lost paperwork, dishonesty, and incompetence by banks are piling up.

A Chase spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Too Big To Jail? Executives Unscathed As Regulators Let Banks Report Criminal Fraud: HUFFINGTON POST

Huffington Post Investigative Fund |  David Heath First Posted: 05- 3-10 09:24 PM   |   Updated: 05- 3-10 09:44 PM

Republished from the Huffington Post Investigative Fund.

The financial crisis has spawned hundreds of criminal prosecutions for alleged fraud. Yet so far, defendants have been mostly minor players such as real-estate agents, mortgage brokers, borrowers and a few low-level bank employees. No senior executives at large financial institutions face criminal charges.

Too Big To JailThats in stark contrast to prosecutions during the savings and loan scandal two decades ago, when the government’s strategy targeted and snagged some of banking’s most powerful players. The approach back then succeeded in sending scores of S&L executives to prison, as well as junk-bond king Michael Milken and business tycoon Charles Keating Jr.

One explanation for the difference may be that key bank regulators — who did the detective work during the S&L crisis and sent more than 1,000 criminal referrals to prosecutors — have this time left reporting fraud up to the banks themselves.

Spokesmen for two chief regulators, the Comptroller of the Currency and the Office of Thrift Supervision, say that they have not sent prosecutors a single case for criminal prosecution.

An OTS spokesman said the agency, much like the banks themselves, does not see much evidence of criminal fraud inside the financial institutions. The spokesman, Bill Ruberry, citing the agency’s enforcement director, said, “There may be some isolated cases, but certainly there’s no widespread patterns.”

That surprises William K. Black, a former OTS official who helped coordinate criminal investigations during the S&L crisis.

“Dear God,” Black said when told bank regulators haven’t made any criminal referrals. “Not a single one?”

Black sees many signs the the government is less aggressive than during the S&L era — and could result in more bad behavior.

“This crisis was not bad luck,” he said. “It was done to us. When you bring those convictions, you hope that at least for a while to deter.”

Banks have reported massive amounts of fraud to the Treasury Department but have not held themselves — or their top executives — responsible, instead pinning blame on borrowers, independent mortgage brokers, and others.

That may account for the dearth of prosections against big fry. For instance, in California, among states where the mortgage meltdown hit hardest, the Huffington Post Investigative Fund identified 170 mortgage fraud prosecutions in federal courts. Only two are against employees of a regulated lender.

An Investigative Fund analysis shows that two-thirds of the 170 prosecutions are against mortgage brokers, real-estate professionals or borrowers — the same groups blamed by the banks when they report suspicious activities to regulators.

Besides the absence of criminal referrals, other plausible factors for the lack of major prosecutions may include a skittishness among prosecutors about filing cases they could have trouble winning, and a severe decline in investigative resources. The FBI dramatically shifted resources away from white-collar crime after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

To be sure, there are also notable differences between the S&L and current financial crisis, in the behavior of lenders during both periods, and between civil allegations of fraud and proving that someone committed a crime — all of which could account for the lack of big prosecutions.

But interviews with several law enforcement authorities suggest another explanation: A lack of active assistance to prosecutors by bank regulators who played key roles during the S&L crackdown. Those regulators sent detailed reports to prosecutors of known and suspicious criminal activity.

“Only the regulators can make a lot of these cases,” Black said. “The FBI can make a few, but the regulators are the ones that understand the industry.”

Under intense political pressure in the late 1980s, the Justice Department and thrift regulators developed a strategy to thoroughly investigate failed S&Ls for evidence of fraud and to focus their resources on the highest ranking executives.

In the early years, between 1987 and 1989, there were more than 300 prosecutions. Some bank executives were already behind bars. In 1989, Woody Lemons, chairman of Vernon Savings and Loan in Texas, was sentenced to 30 years.

In June 1990, then-OTS director Timothy Ryan told Congress that his agency had established criminal-referral units in each of 12 district offices. In addition, more than 30 OTS employees were assigned as full-time agents of grand juries or assistant US attorneys to help prosecutions. And the agency prioritized prosecutions to a Top 100 list, targeting senior S&L executives and directors.

While data on criminal referrals during the S&L crisis is spotty, the Government Accountability Office reported that in the first ten months of 1992 alone — a random snapshot — financial regulators sent the Justice Department more than 1,000 cases for criminal prosecution.

One study showed that 35 percent of criminal referrals in Texas — ground zero for the S&L problems — were against officers and directors.

This time, prosecutors are relying more heavily on banks to report suspicious activity to the Treasury Department. Banks are required to report known or suspected criminal violations, including fraud, on Suspicious Activity Reports designed for the purpose. In effect, the reports, which can be many pages in length, provide substantive leads for criminal investigations.

Black scoffs at the strategy of leaving it to banks to ferret out all the fraud. “Institutions will not make criminal referrals against the people who control the institutions,” said Black.

A white-collar criminologist and law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, he argues that there’s ample evidence of fraud. Insiders working for lenders openly referred to loans they made without proof of income as “liar loans.” Many banks actively sought inflated appraisals in their rush to make as many loans as possible. As previously reported by the Investigative Fund, such lending practices contributed to the demise of Washington Mutual.

Not everyone agrees that such a case can be successful. Benjamin Wagner, a U.S. Attorney who is actively prosecuting mortgage fraud cases in Sacramento, Calif., points out that banks lose money when a loan turns out to be fraudulent. An investor in loans who documents fraud can force a bank to buy the loan back. But convincing a jury that executives intended to make fraudulent loans, and thus should be held criminally responsible, may be too difficult of a hurdle for prosecutors.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me that they would be deliberately defrauding themselves,” Wagner said.

So far, only sporadic news reports suggest that the Justice Department has ongoing criminal investigations against major banks such as Washington Mutual and Countrywide, as well as investment bank Goldman Sachs.

Fewer Cops on the Beat

The Justice Department, in response to written questions from the Investigative Fund, acknowledged the absence of criminal referrals from financial regulators. Months into the financial crisis, a new Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, formed by President Obama last fall, was trying to work out communication problems between Justice and the regulatory agencies, according to the head of the task force, Robb Adkins. Adkins has said that criminal referrals from regulators have been “too often the exception to the rule.”

At a Congressional hearing in December, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer was asked why there have been no criminal cases brought yet against CEOs. “Don’t for a moment think [these cases] aren’t being investigated,” Breuer replied. “They are complicated cases. It took a long time in hatching them and developing them. But they will be brought.”

The system that tracks Suspicious Activity Reports, or SARs, detected a dramatic increase in mortgage fraud starting in 2003, when reports of mortgage fraud nearly doubled within a year from 5,400 to 9,500. By 2007, the number had exploded to 53,000. During those same years, many mortgage lenders dramatically lowered their lending standards. Banks often required no proof of income. Borrowers could even get loans without be able to repay them.

Yet in their reports, banks overwhelmingly have blamed others for fraud. Whenever a borrower’s income was wrong on a loan application, the banks fingered borrowers 87 percent of the time and independent mortgage brokers 64 percent of the time, according to a 2006 Treasury analysis of the SARs. But the bank’s own employees were almost never blamed — only about four times in every 1,000 reports.

That might explain why so few prosecutions have targeted bank insiders.

Another reason for fewer prosecutions against bank employees is that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has far fewer agents working on the current crisis. Deputy Director John Pistole testified before Congress last year that the bureau had 1,000 people working on the S&L crisis at its height. That compares to about 240 agents working on mortgage fraud cases last year.

The FBI dramatically shifted its resources away from white-collar crime and to terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We just didn’t have the cops on the beat” during the recent crisis, said Sen. Ted Kaufman, the Delaware Democrat who conducted a hearing on the lack of criminal prosecutions. “I was around during the savings and loan crisis [as a Congressional aide] and we had a lot more folks working it when it went down.”

Even with additional funding from Congress, which Kaufman helped push through, the FBI is budgeted to have 377 people working mortgage fraud cases this year, about a third as many as during the S&L investigations.

Charges Harder to Prove?

Charges in the recent banking crisis may be harder to prove, said Robert H. Tillman, who teaches at St. John’s University and who analyzed data about S&L prosecutions. Savings and loan executives who were convicted often personally approved large commercial loans for projects doomed to fail. Some would use federally insured deposits to pay themselves excessive salaries or to lend money to their own real estate projects. A few even took kickbacks.

This time, lending executives may have encouraged the making of bad loans, but they generally did not personally approve the loans, Tillman said. They didn’t send emails telling the troops to make fraudulent loans but paid big commissions to loan offers who made risky loans. Then the executives were able to reap huge bonuses for making the company look so profitable.

So far, the biggest cases have been civil lawsuits brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission, including most recently a highly publicized securities fraud case against Goldman Sachs and one of its vice presidents, Fabrice P. Tourre. News reports suggest that a referral from the SEC’s enforcement division to the Justice Department has led to a criminal inquiry.

Typically, federal authorities deal with massive financial scandals by picking a few cases they are confident they can win, said Henry Pontell, an expert on fraud at the University of California — Irvine.

This time, the administration may have been more focused on saving failing banks — and an entire financial system — than in prosecuting bank executives, Pontell said. Giving billions in bailout dollars to executives who encouraged fraudulent practices not only could complicate a case, it could prove embarrasing, he added.

Take a STAND! REMOVE YOUR MONEY 9/11/2010

ENOUGH is ENOUGH!

The more they destroy our lives, the more we lose our identity!

Homeowner Road Trip: Rally in Tallahassee WAY TO GO!!! Huffington Post

 

Richard Zombeck Richard Zombeck
HuffPost’s Eyes & Ears Mortgage Specialist
Posted: April 17, 2010 12:30 PM

Homeowner Road Trip: Rally in Tallahassee

In a time when you can stroll over to the computer and rattle off an e-mail to your elected official because you think your taxes are too high or leave an anonymous comment on a blog or article voicing your disapproval with a particular reporter, it would seem that the days of face-to-face action and rallies are unfortunately a thing of the past.Not for a group of activists in Florida heading to the Capitol in Tallahassee on Wednesday, April 21.

Michael Redman (4closureFraud), and Lisa Epstein (Foreclosure Hamlet), in an effort to convince Florida legislators to listen to their constituents, are organizing a transport to the capital. An old fashion road trip of attorneys, advocates, and homeowners. Transportation is being organized and buses will be available from key areas throughout Florida and along major roadways. Redman and Epstein had initially dipped into their own pockets to charter buses for the event.

As of April 16th, according to Redman’s blog, in a Friday post,

“Team Ice in West Palm has sponsored their bus and now one of Pinellas County’s toughest foreclosure fighters has generously agreed to sponsor a bus to make sure any attorney and homeowner who wants to go to Tallahassee and make his or her voice heard has the opportunity to get up there and meet face to face.”
“One of the most inspiring things about all of this is seeing how the defense attorneys are all throwing their time, talent and treasure into this fight.  We all share our ideas, insight and experience because doing so serves the interests of not just our clients but those folks out there who cannot afford an attorney and it especially serves the Constitution we took an oath to protect and the judiciary we respect,”

The most important piece of legislation the group was trying to stop was a push by bankers to change the way Florida handles foreclosures. Florida currently, and always has had Judicial foreclosures. The bank’s proposed legislation would have allowed banks to foreclose on Florida homes without going to court. According to Matt Weidner, a Florida attorney, the bill for now appears to have been stopped in the House, but the Senate will meet next week and according to an old Florida saying, “No one’s safe while the legislature is in session.”

A non-judicial foreclosure would mean that, “you the homeowner won’t automatically get your day in court if your lender tries to take your house away. The way it works right now is the lender is required by law to file a civil lawsuit against you in order to foreclose. You then have to answer it. If you don’t answer it or don’t show up to court, the judge issues a summary judgment against you. In a non-judicial foreclosure everything is done administratively and your right to due process is compromised and you have to beg for your day in court,” as explained by Steve Dibert of MFI-Miami.

Although the bill appears to have died, and the bankers appear to have conceded, this motivated band of advocates doesn’t want to leave anything to chance.

An e-mail from Weidner reads:

As Mark Twain said, ‘News of My death was greatly exaggerated.’ Although the legislation appears to have died, the passion and concern that its introduction incited has only increased with word of its demise.  Tapping into broad based anxiety and concern felt by homeowners all across Florida, the group has turned its focus from defeating this legislation to demanding legislation that will increase protections for Florida homeowners. Talk about turning the tables.  They are meeting with Senator Mark Aronberg and Rep. Darren Soto who introduced a “Homeowner’s Bill of Rights“. They’re asking that this legislation be resurrected… at the very least they want to make sure their legislators are fully aware of their concerns and the problems they’re facing.

According to Weidner’s press release,

“The response from legislators to this movement has been awe-inspiring. Our leaders in Washington may have trouble hearing the voices of their people, but the leaders who represent us in Tallahassee hear the voice of the people loud and clear! Already leaders from both houses have graciously agreed to meet with their voters, we’re confident many more will agree to meet with us when we arrive.”

Michael Moore spoke of the apathy and lack of action he witnessed despite his tireless work drawing attention to key issues affecting millions of Americans.

“Two years ago, I tried to get the health-care debate going, and it did eventually, and now where are we? We may not even have it. What am I supposed to do at a certain point?, ” Moore said in an 2009 Toronto press conference.

I wrote about that similar frustration with apathy in “Where are the Screaming Liberals?,” back in September 2009.

It’s refreshing and inspiring to think that may be changing.

Denise Richardson (givemebackmycredit.com) posted the following from Lisa Epstein on her blog:

This is not just for homeowners!We are ALL reduced by the actions behind the mortgage frauds and scams. Tenants! Anyone who relies on any public service funded by our now shrunken tax revenues! Anyone owning any property at all, fully paid off or not. Any business owner! Unemployed family members! Credit card/bank account fees victims! Those with drained 401Ks and college savings accounts!

We will be heard as was the Florida Bankers Association on their own “Capitol Day” on March 10, 2010. Florida Bankers, guess what? You wanted a “Taste of Florida”? You are gonna get one! We are having our own “Capitol Day”! But our collective voices will be a harmony; louder, clearer, unwavering, and with a foundation firmly planted in the historical roots of our country as a nation for WE, THE PEOPLE!

Bankers and other stealth foreclosing entities, listen up! We are NOT boobs, chumps, doormats, dupes, easy marks, fools, goats, gulls, patsies, pigeons, pushovers, saps, scapegoats, schmucks, sitting ducks, stooges, suckers, victims, or weaklings, And we most certainly are not “deadbeats”!

To find out more about the rally and let them know you’ll be along for the ride, see Redman’s site at 4closurefraud.org or Weidner’s blog for more information.

Arianna Huffington: Move Your Money!!

TAKE A STAND….MOVE YOUR MONEY!!

The Huffington Post